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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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June 30, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- The Unravelling of Barack Obama

Barack Hussein Obama is blanking me off, as the late George Carlin wouldn’t have said. Since I have on several occasions argued that he has many points of interest, that we on the left can learn much from him, and even that there may be a nonzero chance that if elected he could make some changes in American business-as-usual, I feel compelled to note his bizarre attempts over the past month to reinvent himself as yet another faceless clone of a factory-produced politician complete with a full panoply of stock phrases of steadily increasing degrees of inanity. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say, “Math class is hard.”

It took me a long time to take Obama seriously. Unlike many of perhaps greater perspicacity, I wasn’t that interested in his famous keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. At that point, I was crazily fixated on the idea that someone – anyone – might make some sort of moral critique of what the United States was doing in Iraq. A few months after Abu Ghraib, it didn’t seem totally unreasonable. It didn’t happen. The “awesome God” the Democrats were worshipping was militarism.

After four more years, I have learned better and will not expect such things in the future.

It wasn’t until 2007 that I started having some respect for him, as I realized just how much brighter, cleaner, and more articulate than other politicians Mr. Obama was. I liked the fact that the man had both the intelligence and the guts to at least occasionally stand above the dumbification of American politics. I was intrigued by the idea that we could have in him a president who was not quite of the left, but to whom the ideas and motivations of the left were familiar and understandable. My admiration hit its peak after his brilliant speech on race.

All of you will have your favorite capitulation in the past month to stew over. Accepting the FISA “compromise,” pandering to AIPAC, repeatedly going on Fox to talk of his great admiration for Bush the Elder’s foreign policy, declaring his support for the death penalty for rapists of children, the list goes on and on.

What bothers me is not that he has been pandering. I don’t judge politicians by moral standards and I advise you not to. He needs to win and thus to make the compromises that are necessary to win. My problem is rather that he has been reflexively pandering, making changes that lock him in to indefensible policies and vitiate any hope for a change in the status quo, and that aren’t even going to get him anything. I can detect no serious strategic thought behind his behavior of the past month.

Why pledge to keep the sanctions on Cuba? Why not try to play on the changing demographics of the Cuban-American population and the growing frustration with the embargo even among previous supporters?

And why, pray tell, create a foreign policy advisory team chock-full of the most colorless, gray, establishment figures? Honestly, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, and William Perry? What a Holy Trinity of unthinking Clinton administration stupidity. I understand why he had to drop even the slightest association with Rob Malley, a genuinely decent guy who told us the true story behind Ehud Barak’s nonexistent “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000. I don’t blame him for that. But if he draws his cabinet from this array of fools, I don’t see how he can institute a foreign policy that is qualitatively new in even the smallest of ways.

Obama is a very cautious person, as much of an academic as a politician. Every time he has come up with something interesting to say, it has been after seriously considering it, going over all the pros and cons. He had to do it very fast over the Jeremiah Wright controversy, but naturally he prefers to take longer than that. And when he hasn’t gone through that process, his instinct is to take the path of least resistance, especially in an area, like foreign policy, where he feels very unsure of himself.

The Clinton fight hurt Obama and took away most of his mojo. He has done nothing to attempt to regain it, preferring to buckle down, hold on like grim death, and ride the polls to victory. I don’t think this is a great strategy even for victory, let alone for enabling change. He needs to stop and think out a coherent strategy for the general election, hopefully one that involves more than just claiming he’s not John McCain. He may or may not win without doing that, but he needs to pull another rabbit out of a hat if he wants to reopen the space for change that he has been so relentlessly closing down. Can the left help push him to that? It’s unlikely, but it’s the only game in town at the moment.

Posted at 10:56 am.

June 23, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Afghanistan and Deja Vu All Over Again

Since the beginning of May, roughly as many American soldiers have died in Afghanistan as in Iraq, even though there are about four and a half times as many in Iraq.

Since this is apparently the only metric that matters, all of a sudden, there is some media attention to the fact that has been obvious for several years, which is that the situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening.

Indeed, Ahmed Rashid, whose new book Descent into Chaos is a forceful indictment of U.S. policy in Afghanistan after the war, has been making the rounds trying to convince people that Afghanistan is a worse problem globally than Iraq and deserves more attention.

Rashid may well know more about Afghanistan and in particular about its political history over the past three decades than anyone else in the world. His book confirms in copious detail what has been clear to serious observers of U.S. “nation-building” in Afghanistan: the fact that the United States has been, especially in the first several years, committed to the warlords rather than to any potential nascent secular democratic forces; that people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz had no interest in building democracy in Afghanistan; that the new Afghan government had almost no resources for governance while actual policy was made by other forces; that virtually all reconstruction was for show and benefited no one but warlords, local elites, and political allies of the United States; that a huge opportunity to improve the lives of Afghans at very little cost has been lost.

Sadly, he succumbs to the same delusions as Barack Obama and a number of liberal Democrats who know little or nothing about Afghanistan.

Across the board, from Rashid to Obama to NATO to American generals – and perhaps one day even to Republicans and the Bush administration – there is a growing drumbeat for an increased American presence in Afghanistan and an even more aggressive prosecution of the war against the neo-Taliban. In the coming months, you can expect many pundits, flush with deep understanding of the supposed eternal verities of counterinsurgency theory and with a perception of tremendous success in Iraq, to pile on.

The logic of these calls is deeply flawed. In fact, the U.S. troop presence in Iraq made matters worse in every time period from April 2003 onward, with the partial exception of September 2007 until the present. Iraq had degenerated into massive internecine violence, to the point of creating significant internal rifts within sectarian communities and even within individual armed organizations; some of those groups made decisions to stand down and others to abandon erstwhile allies and support the Americans. The positive role played by the U.S. troop presence and its shift in strategy was largely confined to the fact that it created a greater incentive for these various realignments.

In Afghanistan, however, the level of violence is currently low (by the country’s normal standards) – except for coalition violence against suspected insurgents and insurgent violence against the coalition. The Toronto Globe and Mail recently did a major interview project with 42 ground-level Taliban fighters and concluded that the majority of them fight for one simple reason – that there are foreigners in their country running it.

And, according to Antonio Giustozzi’s recent book Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, the neo-Taliban are much more careful about their violence than the various Iraqi insurgent groups and are more careful about their crazy religious edicts than the old Taliban were. This is not to deny that they kill civilians in their suicide bombings, kill teachers and foreign aid workers and shut down schools, and do various other awful things, but rather simply to say that they may well be attentive enough to the considerations of the population in southern Afghanistan to retain legitimacy and the ability to continue their struggle.

Even if we leave aside consideration of their safe-haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, there is no reason to believe that any reasonable increase in offensive operations by coalition forces will defeat the insurgency; indeed, we seem to be at a point currently where increasing of counterinsurgent operation will actually increase the size and power of the insurgency.

We have a major opportunity not to turn Afghanistan into Iraq. Alternatively, we could ramp up the occupation, let loose a spiral of violence that kills hundreds of thousands, then, when everyone is once again saturated with it, have a “surge” and announce “success” when the level of violence once again dips down. Sadly, the people who will suffer if we do this have no voice in the decision.

Posted at 10:55 am.

June 16, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- John McCain and American Victimology

After he returned from Vietnam, John McCain spent nine months at the National War College. His final thesis, recently dug up by the New York Times, is an analysis of the suitability of the U.S. military’s POW Code of Conduct in the light of McCain’s experience and those of his fellows in prison in Hanoi.. It offers several insights into the shaping of John McCain, as well as lessons on how we should look at the Iraq war.

The most fundamental point, generally missed by those who think of McCain as just a “Vietnam veteran” or a “war hero,” is that for McCain the Vietnam War is primarily an experience of his own victimization. Unlike, say, Chuck Hagel, who was in combat infantry, or John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, Rich Armitage, or various others, McCain did his killing from the air. Insulated from seeing the effects of the bombs he dropped, it was easy for him to maintain ridiculous fictions such as the view that the United States bombed only military targets, when the truth was that more than twice as much tonnage was dropped on Vietnam as was used during all of World War 2.

Those other men, whatever political positions they have taken, know in their guts the horrors of war and the brutalization of the self that occurs when you kill people close up; McCain, never distinguished for empathy or intellectual acuity, does not.

Once McCain was shot down, he was beaten by the people who shot him down before being turned over to the authorities and then endured torture of roughly the kind and intensity that is very familiar to the men who were taken to Bagram or Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo – worse than for some of them and better than for many others. This torture reinforced in McCain the notion that the evils of war were all perpetrated by “the enemy,” a deepseated feeling that does not seem to have been shaken by anything he has learned since.

While in prison, the challenge for the prisoners, as it generally is, was to maintain their dignity in the face of degradation and in particular under the combination of torture and various blandishments such as access to better food or to early release for those who would make political statements of the kind their captors wanted.

One of McCain’s chief beliefs, whether correct or not, was that prisoners who were more critical of the war and the actions of the United States were much more likely to cooperate and to, in his view, betray their country. Later cohorts of prisoners were much more likely to be critical, because they had been exposed to those views by the antiwar movement or by various antiwar politicians.

For McCain and many of his fellows, in contrast, unthinking faith in the nobility and honor of America, and of their personal nobility and honor as a reflection of America’s, was the most fundamental anchor for their sense of self.

One of the recommendations he made in his thesis is that American soldiers be taught about how wonderful U.S. foreign policy is, even though he acknowledged that this might be seen as “brainwashing.”

The result of John McCain’s personal formation in this crucible is that McCain, every bit as much as George Bush, believes affirmatively in not questioning one’s country’s actions and by extension, though he would not admit it, in not understanding them. For both men, deliberate unthinkingness is a positive virtue; though in the case of Bush, this is widely understood, sadly very few have thought this through with regard to McCain.

John McCain’s view of the Vietnam War through the prism of the victimization of the American soldier is far from unique; indeed, it is the dominant view of the American public and even of the left with regard both to Vietnam and to Iraq. Over the course of the 1970’s, the Vietnam vet as victim became the primary frame for the war; others all faded into the background. Then, in the 1980’s, the country unlearned the moral lessons of Vietnam and the way was cleared for the resurgence of interventionism.

In the Iraq war, from the beginning, there has been almost no other discourse; everything is about the victimization of the American soldier. John McCain at least has a good excuse for the initial evolution of his primitive and ignorant worldview; the rest of us, especially on the left, have none for fostering the creation of more John McCains.

Posted at 10:22 am

June 9, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Iraqi Sovereignty and the Status of Forces Agreement

The Bush administration’s latest gambit on Iraq is to try to transform the legal basis of the U.S. presence in Iraq by letting its Security Council authorization expire at the end of the year and replacing it with a long-term “status-of-forces agreement” (or SOFA) signed with the Iraqi government, supposedly of the kind that our globe-spanning empire has with about 80 countries.*

Things aren’t quite going smoothly, though, in part because, as the administration has yet to figure out, verbal/legal legerdemain, no matter how clever, can’t actually change reality. What is being worked out is not a status of forces agreement like those with Germany, Japan, or South Korea, for the obvious reason that, except for reckless driving and random sexual depredations, the U.S. military is not at war in those countries.

The administration refuses to release details of their proposed SOFA. In part because of the lack of confirmable information, U.S. newspapers have published very little about this, but some Iraqi parliamentarians have been talking to the press. The most complete picture of the negotiations was published in al-Hayat on June 3, although it is based on the testimony of a single source and should be evaluated cautiously. According to this source, U.S. requests include the continuation of impunity, with American soldiers and contractors not subject to Iraqi law or authority; the right to launch military strikes without consultation; and the right to hold Iraqis without subjecting them to due process of any law. Although the United States does have elaborate mechanisms worked out for trying American soldiers who rape Okinawan women by courts martial, the other provisions would of course be unthinkable in other countries.

Patrick Cockburn later reported in the Independent that the United States also wants long-term use of 50 military bases, a charge that was hotly disputed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

According to al-Hayat, the Iraqi side has suggested instead that bases be held with leases that are renewable annually, that military operations require the written permission of the Iraqi government, that immunity for U.S. forces should apply only to approved missions, and with a nice twist, that the United States should pay rent for the bases it occupies. If that last is true, well, the Japanese government should show that much independence.

Bush wants to take care of the SOFA without ratification by the Senate; other SOFAs are considered executive agreements and not treaties, but then other SOFAs don’t involve wars. He also wants the Iraqi government to sign it without submitting it to parliamentary approval.

As usual in these situations, the Iraqi side seems more committed to democracy – Ayatollah Sistani has already made it clear that national consensus and ratification by the parliament are necessary and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari promised in April that the agreement would be submitted to the parliament.

There has also been somewhat of a revolt in the U.S. Congress, with formal complaints about the administration’s attempt to cut it out of the process. On the other hand, this seems to be a procedural, not a substantive complaint – the only thing that the supposedly opposition-dominated Congress can agree on is a requirement that the SOFA include provisions requiring Iraq to pay for continuing U.S. military operations. Although the administration threatened a veto, this resolution passed the House with a veto-proof 95% margin. It takes some chutzpah to invade a country illegally, occupy it, reduce it to chaos, and then – illegally – demand that it pay for your ongoing violence; it’s a sad state of affairs when George Bush is on the right side of a debate.

These incipient signs that some Iraqi lawmakers are trying to act like they’re part of a sovereign nation are encouraging; previous resistance to U.S.-driven political initiatives has mostly been on issues that are at least somewhat peripheral to the occupation. It’s very likely that the dramatic improvement in the security situation has many Iraqi legislators, especially those in the opposition parties, ready to see the backside of the Americans.

Although the United States will undoubtedly allow a few face-saving measures in the end, strongarming the Iraqi government into an agreement and either making an end run around or manipulating the parliament only serves to subvert the very development of Iraq’s political processes that everyone in the United States claims to want so much.

* Although this article from the Times says 80, a recent Post op-ed by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates says "more than 115." This is one of the few cases where I would take the word of administration officials over the media. Posted at 10:03 am

June 2, 2008

Weekly Commentary -- Democracy and Pakistan

As you will recall, Pakistan held elections on February 18 and, despite concerns that Pervez Musharraf would somehow manipulate them to facilitate his remaining in power, they were largely free and fair (to the extent that elections in Pakistan ever are). Among the clear messages sent by the Pakistani voting public were a resounding rejection of Islamic extremist parties and a rejection of Musharraf’s authoritarian rule (his party, the PML-Q, did very poorly in the elections).

There has in fact been something of a democratic restoration in Pakistan. Musharraf’s hold on power is virtually gone, and the new civilian government is actually making decisions. Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the stunning lack of attention to these developments paid by the administration, presidential candidates, and the media.

You also wouldn’t know that, despite the provisional and partial establishment of civilian rule, deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has not been reinstated. His opposition to Musharraf’s agenda and subsequent firing is what launched the pro-democracy movement recently referred to in the New York Times Magazine as the Lawyers’ Crusade and set off the chain of events that led to Musharraf’s catastrophic decline in popularity, to the point where he had little choice but to allow free and fair elections.

By some stunning coincidence, not only was America’s man in Islamabad, Musharraf, against the restoration of Chaudhry and the rule of law, so is the heir of America’s favored politician, Benazir Bhutto. Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is now the power behind the throne in Pakistan, and he has steadfastly refused to allow restoration of an independent judiciary.

His primary reason for this has little to do with U.S. interests. Zardari’s corruption is so legendary that he is known in Pakistan as “Mr. 10 Percent;” though he spent years in prison for it, he was never tried and convicted. His first priority once he came into power was to pressure the Supreme Court to enable the quashing of his corruption case, something he finally accomplished last month. Imagine the state of a democracy in which the man in power (though he is not the official chief executive) subordinates the role of an entire branch of government to the considerations of a criminal case against himself.

And yet this state of affairs as well has occasioned little comment from the United States. Even as George W. Bush rediscovers his legendary commitment to democracy, even to the point of making a special tour of the Middle East just to hector his autocratic allies there, there has been a conspicuous silence on Pakistan.

The primary reason is very clear, though it is never remarked on in the U.S. media. The Bush administration dislikes Chaudhry and considers him a terrorist sympathizer, because one of the two major issues on which he confronted Musharraf, and the one that precipitated Musharraf’s crisis, is the “disappearing” of citizens in Pakistan by Pakistani government forces, the FBI, and presumably U.S. Special Forces in the service of George Bush’s “war on terror.”

The Bush administration’s flagrant disregard for U.S. law, international law, the laws of the countries its people are operating in, and the elementary considerations of due process and human decency when it comes to terrorism suspects translate nicely into an actual opposition to restoration of the rule of law and genuine checks-and-balances democracy in Pakistan.

Had the administration not been so much against Chaudhry, Zardari might still have embarked on the course he has taken, but there is no doubt that the United States is changing the balance of forces so that it weighs against democracy in Pakistan.

Barack Obama has been laboring mightily to open up space between his conception of foreign policy and the conceptions of a Hillary Clinton or a John McCain. Aside from certain nuanced and overstated differences on Iraq, his primary gambit has been regarding diplomacy and in particular diplomacy with Iran. Over the past year, he has been pushed to refine his initial position in favor of negotiations without preconditions repeatedly – he is against “unconditional” negotiation, against preconditions, in favor of preparation of conditions – to the point that it would take a medieval scholastic philosopher to parse the distinctions. All because he can’t bring himself to point out that meaningful negotiations require the possibility of concessions, which is where he and McCain might actually differ.

Especially after closing the space on Latin America in an unfortunate speech two weeks ago, he could hardly find a better place than Pakistan on which to stake his claims to a new approach.

Posted at 10:54 am
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